I was fortunate enough to receive an early access invite to Stan, the newest contender in the Australian VOD streaming war that has just begun. While the name might be silly, they actually have a surprisingly decent catalogue of content (movies, documentaries and TV series), however it isn’t as big as I would have hoped.
What is Stan?
Basically Stan is an Australian equivalent of Netflix (forgoing the fact that Netflix is about to launch in Australia and New Zealand themselves). You pay a flat monthly fee of $10 and get access to unlimited content across a multitude of devices. A similar Foxtel backed offering called Presto already exists, Stan is operated beneath a company called StreamCo which is a partnership between Channel Nine and Fairfax.
The signup process was pretty seamless and intentions quite clear. I have created an account with Netflix and Hulu before and the process is basically the same. You get given a free trial (in the case of Stan it is one month), you enter your credit card details during the signup process and once your trial ends, unless you cancel, your card is billed going forward every month.
After signing up, you are greeted with a layout quite similar to Netflix. Grouped sections of content with sometimes quirky titles, “Every. Episode. Ever.” dominate the homepage. Thumbnail images arranged into sections that you can paginate across by moving your mouse to the left or right side of the block.
My first impression was they have taken Netflix and threw some relatively uninspired branding over the top. The blue gradients and child like font for the logo and navigation menu also makes the app feel a little unpolished. Coupled with the fact they called it Stan (what the heck does Stan even mean?), it feels a little slapped together.
For the general consumer the design is probably the last thing they will be concerned with, but as a front-end developer I tend to notice things a little bit more. There are numerous UX inconsistencies and issues with the application itself (some I’ll get into shortly). Stan feels like it could be a great product, but looking at it, you get the feeling the brief was, “Build something like Netflix and get it out ASAP”
The real reason people join these services is for the content (after the price, of course). Honestly, I was surprised when I saw just how much great content they had; Ray Donovan, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul (a Stan exclusive), Dexter, Hannibal, Community and a few other TV shows. There seems to be a decent selection of movies as well.
There is a great selection of HD content and my crappy ADSL connection was actually able to handle it without hiccups. The Stan player seems to fetch content ahead of time so the idea is the experience remains smooth. For the most part, content was smooth and easy to play.
While Stan has a great selection of content, they don’t really have many categories to select from nor do they let you truly dig down and have fine grained control of what you are looking for. You can’t search for a romantic comedy horror film or emotional world drama. The catalogue isn’t large enough to allow such detailed sorting just yet, but it is a feature they should consider.
As I mention further down, the interface is rather simple to the point where you can’t sort content in the catalogue by TV series or movie, nor can you really sort what you are seeing by genre. I guess this is why they have the horizontal thumbnail boxes on the homepage for discovery.
There is undoubtedly some great content to pick from, but I would say after going through the catalogue they don’t have a catalogue as extensive as Netflix or even Presto. It seems there is probably only around 300 movies at the moment and possibly about 170 TV shows. Not a large selection by any means, if Stan want to compete with the big boys they need more content and fast.
Going forward it will be interesting to see if StreamCo follow Netflix’s lead and produce their own original content a la breakout series on Netflix like Orange Is The New Black and The Killing. Something tells me they have the budget and contacts to pull it off.
Bugs, Issues and Inconsistencies
There are definitely a few issues I spotted, UI inconsistencies and other parts of Stan that need some further polish before they release this thing to a larger audience.
Issues ranging from the back button breaking when the player is in view to certain buttons (like the close button on the player) being washed out because of the dynamic content behind them and lack of a shadow to visually separate it. I even encountered stuttering with some videos, an issue I thought that was caused by my machine, but was noticeable on my Mac, my beefy desktop gaming PC and a mid-range HP laptop.
A more noticeable issue in the Stan interface is some pretty noticeable lag. This is one of the downsides of using something like AngularJS and its two-way binding which uses dirty checking and can create some pretty serious performance issues. Scrolling and clicking around doesn’t feel as snappy as something like rival Netflix or Hulu does. Perhaps the team should look into React.js for certain UI components to improve browser performance.
Then you have the issue of Stan using a Silverlight player. In Chrome support for NPAPI plugins was recently deprecated, as it turns out there is a Silverlight player solution popular amongst VOD platforms like Stan (because of the need for strict DRM).
As a result of using Silverlight, you can’t actually watch content in Chrome because of this NPAPI deprecation. Instead of choosing a Flash or HTML5 solution, Stan merely tell you to use a different browser instead. Netflix migrated away from Silverlight a long time ago, so they’ll have the upper hand bringing their HTML5 solution to Australian shores which works flawlessly in Chrome.
There is also an annoying issue where the volume keeps getting reset to 50%. My volume choice doesn’t seem to persist from page to page like it does on Youtube. A minor issue, but it is annoying that it keeps getting reset even after I already set it elsewhere, watch something new and it gets reset again.
Another pretty big oversight is the lack of responsive layout. It seems Stan have gone for a more app agnostic approach in the form of applications for smaller screens. So resizing your browser yields a site that can’t really be used if you like resizing your browser. Weirdly enough, the account management section is completely responsive. There doesn’t appear to be any logical consistency between the two sections.
Whether or not the final public version sports a responsive layout remains to be seen, indications seem to suggest they’ll be focusing on separate applications instead of focusing on dynamic screen sizes (probably until they implement a HTML5 player).
The search results page also lacks the ability to sort content by type, genre or length. This seems like a pretty glaring missed feature on Stan’s part (hopefully they’ll add it in soon). Searching just yields a catalogue of thumbnails, but you can’t actually tell what content is a movie or TV show.
There also seems to be an apparent lack of social integration. No Facebook sharing, no ability to recommend a movie or TV show to a friend, no ability to like a movie, TV series or particular episode. One of my favourite features on Hulu was the Facebook comments at the bottom of the page where people could discuss the movie, TV series or a particular episode.
Some of the caveats like issues with the back button are issues as a result of using AngularJS as their front-end framework of choice, but undoubtedly one of the better suited frameworks for an application like this and the issues I saw are relatively easy fixes.
Stan hasn’t even launched yet and they are very much in beta (even though they don’t really say that), so I can’t be too harsh on them. Overall it is a pretty decent product with a few issues I am sure they will iron out (I did email them a list before I wrote this post).
Whether or not they can compete when Netflix lands is anyones guess. The original content on Netflix is pretty good, so will Stan produce their own or just acquire even more unique content to stay inline with their competition? Not to mention Netflix has more content to bring over with them.
For me the lack of filtering content, the lack of content to filter and lack of social is a pretty big deal. If Stan launches with all three of those caveats, they’re going to find it hard to compete with Netflix when they arrive in a few months time.
Maybe the lack of social is only a big deal to me, but it seems like a no brainer to drive engagement and signups by getting as much exposure as you possibly can utilising your dedicated existing user base. It works well for other platforms, so why not Stan as well?
One feature I would love to see implemented is more descriptive and useful movie and TV show detail pages. Say for example clicking a James Bond film would take you to the page with the synopsis and list of who stars in it and who directed it (like it currently does) you would be presented with a movie trailer, downloadable images, Rotten Tomato ratings, IMDB links and overall just a little bit more personality to make each movie/TV detail page feel a little bit more engaging. Unless I have seen the movie before, I will go to Youtube and watch a trailer, having that ability within Stan would be extremely useful to me and many others.
The future is bright, man. Bring on the great VOD war of 2015 where the only certain winner will be Australian consumers.